DRUMMER MIKE MANGINI
INTERVIEW AND PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Mike Mangini is an American drummer, and the current drummer for the progressive metal band Dream Theater. Mangini joined band in 2011 after the departure of founding drummer Mike Portnoy. Later on that same year the band released its latest opus DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS. Mangini’s earlier playing credits include Annihilator, Extreme and Steve Vai among others. He’s also well known for his work as a session musician and lecturing for years at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Mangini has also written two books titled Rhythm Knowledge about his unique drumming techniques, a practice method for deconstructing and simplifying complex poly-rhythms and time signatures. Dream Theater opened their 2012 European leg of “Dramatic Tour of Events” from Helsinki in mid January. It was at this tour stop that we had a pleasure to sit down with Mr. Mangini and discuss the current state of Dream Theater and some older stuff as well. Read on!
I just learned that you guys have been in Finland for several days and you’ve been practicing for this upcoming tour, right?
Right, well, it takes quite a while to get the equipment ready and what we have, a lot of a new songs coming into the set. We have to learn the production. We need time to tweak all that. We actually, what I’ve found when we prepare for a tour, we don’t play a lot because we’re working on the gear or working on transitions, on ideas and we can do the video. Stuff like that.
Come next April you’ll have been in the band for one year. How is everything been so far and what’s been the best thing about playing with Dream Theater for you personally?
It’s been great. I feel comfortable with everything, you know, I’ve hooked up with everybody, but what’s the best thing is that I get to think about drums and practicing my drums more than I have in the last decade. It’s really fun for me just to work harder. Now I have the time to do that.
How familiar were you with Dream Theater and their music before you joined in the band?
Oh no. I never learned any. I just, you know, knew them if I heard them. You know, when I listened but I never sat down to learn their material and sitting down to learn is a different thing.
When you’re now playing the old Dream Theater material, do you play everything exactly the same way as former drummer Mike Portnoy used to play those songs?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve learned it that way. I make sure that I learn what he played and then I feel like I can make decisions now to change some things. And there’s some things changed but they‘re not main things. The only thing I’ll change now that I didn’t do with the last tour is that I put my own fills-in in big sections like in the “Fortunate Lives” or “As I Am” or when we did “Endless Sacrifice” on the last tour, I was doing Mike’s fills for a long time and the then I just said, no, forget it, I’m going to throw my stuff and I’m going to go nuts. Because I think, you know, I wanted people to know that I respect the song the way it is and I liked it and I enjoyed it. But eventually, that needs to be — there are some spots I should do something on my own.
I think that when the time goes by songs will evolve more in way, right?
In technical or otherwise, what’s been the most challenging thing with Dream Theater’s music?
Well, I think it’s — probably the WHEN DAY AND DREAM UNITE -album. The reason I say that is because the later records, there are, you know, metronome settings, you know, the tempos and then the earlier records, it’s kind of up and down and all over the place and it’s hard to match anybody’s feel, you know. That’s always tough. It was like, it’s kind of like playing early Van Halen, you know, with Van Halen records, you know, the tempos are speeding up, slowing down… just feel, does this, does that.
There are some so-called die-hard fans who said, “No. There is no Dream Theater without Portnoy” but it seems that majority of the fans have accepted you great way. What’s the best feedback you have got from the fans?
The best feedback that I have gotten is that, since the Dream Theater fans are knowledgeable, they acknowledge my skill level and my passion for wanting to play the music. But you know, as close as I can so that they’re happy and I also like it. But everyone should probably know, and if they don’t know that you should know, that even nobody can replace Charlie Watts in the Rolling Stones like nobody has somebody else’s exact feel or touch but it is possible to put some passion and skill and have it come out great. That’s what I am trying to do.
Have you got any direct feedback from Mr. Portnoy himself?
Initially, he was just wishing me well and that’s about it. You know, we’ve been friends for 15 years. We always hook up, hang out and stuff but I just haven’t seen him since this all happened ‘cause clearly, I’m busy.
THE AUDITION AND MORE
Well, once you did the audition, it was made public via Internet. Was it any, you know, stressful thing to do when you know that everyone was watching you in your work during the audition?
Yes. It was firstly – it was stressful to keep that secret and the reason we all made a deal to keep it secret is to include the fans in the surprise. What good was it if everybody knew? You know, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. It was interesting watching it as it happened on the Internet while everyone was seeing it. I was crazy and it was really fun for me. But again, it wasn’t easy because, you know, if I do or say something silly or make a funny face, I grin a little bit because it’s embarrassing sometimes, you know, anyway “laughs”
There was a lot of speculation on the net, of course, that you were already chosen to be the new drummer before those auditions. Is there any truth behind that rumor?
Oh no way.
At which point do did know that “I’m the guy!”?
That was like a week or so later or I don’t remember. It was, maybe 2 weeks, something like that. So 1 to 2 weeks. I actually don’t remember but it was a while… and it was painful. It was painful for me to wait. I was absolutely not chosen, I mean the Dream Theater would never do that. They needed to find the person that works the best for them, you know. And I have never played really with anybody in that band except that I jumped on stage once in the Six Degrees -tour. I was the first person to play on Mike’s double kit with him, isn’t that funny?
Okay, but in late 90’s, you played with James in a band Mull Muzzler?
Yeah. We were. It was a studio band. It was great band.
And later on you performed on James’s solo albums.
On a few records but we didn’t do any shows together.
I think playing with James at that point did help them to make the final decision?
Oh yes. It helped in specially James was able to tell everybody in the band what I was like to work with in the studio. He knew, I mean he saw me under extreme pressure three times so he was able to based his opinion of me on three situations to see me how I behave, how I act, how I play, how I work. He got to see that three times and he, you know, he communicated his approval to everybody.
Since the time at the band, at which point did you start working on new material with the band?
Let’s see – no, no, it was not written. They wrote the material starting in January when they were in the studio and I just waited at home while I was working on my equipment and it took me three solid months to construct the final studio drum set. That was very hard work so I had to guess. I had to play old material and still make it my drum set but I had to work in different things that might have do the songs sound correct. And I have to figure out where to put these things. You know, I have a lot of thinking.
The new album DRAMATIC TURN OF EVENTS did great in charts and the band even got the Grammy nomination. So it seems that you have done something right with that one “laughs”
Yes and I think, you know, I’ve always – I think the right thing to do is to let people that are experts at what they do let them do their jobs. Let them do the work, I mean, even with this crew; we really don’t mess around too much with somebody else’s area. We give them that support and give them that autonomy and power to create. That’s what’s different. Nobody in the band is a — you know, Mike was, I guess involved with everything and now, none of us were involved with anything. You know, and even with the writing of the music, you know, it was best that I let them, go ahead and do it because they hadn’t work with me before. I didn’t even, you know, put it this way, next time if I am involved in that writing process, it will be that I would have had a chance to really play Dream Theater songs and I really know what it’s like and I didn’t have that for the first time.
SOME OLD STUFF AND ANNIHILATOR
Let’s go back in time a little bit. I remember that I first heard name Mike Mangini in ’91.
Ninety one, I did a session with Steve Perry from Journey but nobody… …nobody heard that.
Whatever did happen for those recordings?
I don’t know. That’s in secret. I don’t know where that is. Maybe Steve Perry has in the shoebox “laughs”
In 1993 you joined Canadian metal band Annihilator and I’m a huge fan of SET THE WORLD ON FIRE album. How did that thing come about back then?
Yeah. And you know something, thank you, first of all. Secondly, that came about because the rhythm guitar – oh the second guitarist, Neil Goldberg, was in a band with me in Boston and during the recording session, Annihilator’s drummer Ray Hartman, for whatever reason was not able to play that material and if he was somehow Jeff, it wasn’t really working with Jeff Waters so I don’t really know. I just — I don’t know. Because I think I like Ray’s drumming a lot so I don’t know what happened but I was flown in without hearing any material to just record that record and man, I mean, that those — there are no samples. There’s no re-triggering. There’s no pasting. There’s nothing. I mean, I hit those drums so hard and so, you know, with the machine like right on the time that I’m really proud of that record.
There is some really great stuff there like “Brain Dance” which is one of my all-time Annihilator favorites.
I did read somewhere that Ray Hartman had already recorded some drums for the album before you replaced him. Did you re-record all tracks or did they use some of the Ray’s recordings as well?
I just started from scratch with a clean click. Just raw click, you know?
Well, there are many different stories around about Jeff Waters and how is he to work with. How is Jeff to work with in your opinion?
Well, he is a — Jeff is a perfectionist. Okay? And he writes the material so it’s his. I’ve always been able to allow a composer to be the composer and I don’t get in their way too much. So I was able to work with Jeff because I respected his decision like I didn’t try too much to go against him if he suggested something to me, I usually liked it. I thought it was good. But it’s very difficult to record when, you know, one symbol can’t be one decibel different in one hit. Maybe he really wants us to the sound as clean as the machine. He wants it that way. You know, every hit has to be like, PAPAPA-PAPAPAPA, like exactly the same philosophy, well, do. So, but it’s very difficult to maintain that focus, to play like that.
You left the band just one year later but later on you’ve played on several Annihilator albums like METAL and ALL FOR ONE. Do you still keep on touch with Jeff Waters?
Yeah. Yes. Yeah. We are doing great, you know.
THE TIME WITH EXTREME
After the Annihilator thing, you joined in band Extreme.
Yes. Extreme. That was a lot of fun.
About your time with the band, what are the best and worst memories from that era?
Well, the greatest memory is that I felt like they had saved me from a different life, like they pulled me into the life that I wanted. So I was really grateful, you know, and the worst thing is that we had worked on a lot of new material together, either, you know, in sound check together or then Nuno just brought some material in. And the saddest thing is nobody will ever get to hear that and I thought it was the greatest stuff ever, ever. It was — it would have been very, very different but it would have been, you know, it would have, it was Extreme but basically, with me doing my thing, my real thing on it. It was just so great and it never got recorded and that’s it. It’s just gone.
The album you recorded with Extreme, WAITING FOR THE PUNCHLINE, how do you like that one now afterwards? Personally I didn’t like it too much….
Well, it depends on how you view it. I mean, I’m only on three songs. You know, Paul Geary is on the rest. There was a little bit of turmoil so that maybe that comes out on the music but, you know, there are songs like “Evelangelist” that I think unbelievable. I like a lot of it, I do, but you know, anyway, it’s just an opinion.
In a way you did join Extreme a little bit late because band had already lost some of its popularity?
Oh yeah. It wasn’t easy time.
That was in the mid 90’s when hard rock was overall on the downhill.
Later on you did continue to work with the Extreme guys. In 1998 you played on Nuno’s solo album SCHIZOPHONIC and later on you played with Gary in a band called Tribe of Judah in 2002.
Yeah. Those were fun recordings to do, I mean, the tracks that I recorded on Nuno’s record, those were done on a tiny electronic drum set in the dressing room. So that’s where that came from. You know, just like little ride of rides symbol, snare and the bass drum. You know, the TTTTTTTT very simple straight ahead beats. And then the Tribe of Judah stuff. I’ve got to — that was the Tribe of Judah was the beginning of my usage of multi-high hazard snare drums. Because one of the composers, the keyboard player Steve Ferlazzo, who’s now playing with Avril Lavigne, Steve composed some drum machine parts that I thought sounded great so I wanted to kind of mimic those parts on the record.
I actually met Nuno last year when he was in Finland with Rihanna…
He said if I see you, say HI, so there you go “laughs”
BITS AND PIECES
Between the years 2002 and 2005, you did a couple of world records, you know, the fastest drummer thing. Can’t hesitate to ask, how you are doing with that thing nowadays?
Well, I don’t practice that so I don’t know how I’m doing. You know, I practice it for a little while because it was a lot of fun to do that and actually, the best part is that I learned from the other contestants. You know, there were even some of the younger kids who were able to enlighten me because you can always learn. So I thought it was a great learning experience.
Another thing, I was just thinking have you’ve never been listed on those best drummer polls etc. like on Modern Drummer?
Oh, when I was playing with Steve Vai, I appeared in some of those polls and that was it.
Do you think that playing with Dream Theater that will help you get back there? “laughs”
What kind of position will make you happy?
With that stuff, I don’t know. I don’t have too many feelings associated with it. Although I appreciate it, who wouldn’t? You appreciate it. People vote. Okay, you appreciate it, It’s okay if I’m – it doesn’t, it basically doesn’t matter the position I end up in a way basically because a lot of those drummers are my friends. I don’t wish to go finish number one with my friends. So let one of them win “laughs”
By the way, how is your teacher career doing in Berkley?
No. No. I resigned. As soon as I knew that I was in this band, I put a letter of resignation in right away.
Do you have plans to do more drum clinic tours in the future?
Oh yes. Yes but we are busy. So I will fit them in between. I’m busy in between legs right now cause I, you know, I learn extra songs and I have to practice really quite a bit to because I had knee surgery, you know, and I lost a lot of muscle in my upper legs. It’s like, my knee is okay but it’s the muscles around that take 2, 3 or 4 years to build up because I let them go so far. It’s not that I had a surgery that takes 3 years to repair. That’s not it. There was a simple kind of a surgery. It’s that the rest of the muscles had died – atrophied.
Allright, the last question, after this European tour is done, what’s next to the plans?
Oh touring in South America, I would assume. You know, wait a minute, no, no, we have, I’m sorry, we have Japan, and then Korea and then Indonesia. And then I would assume South America but I don’t know those we don’t have dates so I don’t know.
Okay. Maybe that’s it.
It’s very nice to meet you.
FOR MORE INFO GO TO: